OBITUARIES: Sir Alan Wilson - People - News - The Independent

OBITUARIES: Sir Alan Wilson

Alan Wilson's long and active life can be divided into two parts: first as an academic scientist of great distinction, then in an industrial career at the top of two British companies - Courtaulds and Glaxo.

Wilson obtained a permanent place in the history of science as the first man to explain the difference between metals and insulators and thus give us our modern picture of the nature of semi-conductors. He carried out research into solid state physics, quantum theory and on the properties of metals, and wrote many influential books, including The Theory of Metals (1936), Semi-Conductors and Metals (1939) and Thermo- dynamics and Statistical Mechanics (1957).

Wilson was born on Merseyside in 1906 and won a scholarship from Wallasey Grammar School to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, at the age of 16. Studies in chemistry were followed by mathematics and then physics. Academic success, prizes and college fellowships followed thick and fast, including the Smith's Prize in 1928 and the Adams Prize in 1931. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society at a young age in 1942.

Wilson had a strong practical bent and his experiences in the Second World War, participating in the British effort on atomic research and development, undoubtedly stimulated an inclination to combine the practical with the intellectual and in 1945 he joined the Board of Courtaulds as its research director. After re-organising and building up the research division at Courtaulds he was appointed managing director in 1954 before finally becoming deputy chairman in 1957. He was knighted in 1961.

The hotly contested bid for Courtaulds by ICI led Wilson to move to Glaxo in 1963 as chairman, in succession to Sir Harry Jephcott. The 10 years he remained as executive chairman proved to be his most creative in industry. He brought together and reorganised under a new holding company (Glaxo Group) a disparate collection of uncoordinated businesses - the result of a series of undigested mergers in the late Fifties and early Sixties. He initiated a truly international approach by breaking the "Commonwealth" mould in which Glaxo had been fixed and entering the European markets head on.

A decisive step was the establishment of effective basic research in the group. The small unit he created and quietly nurtured and sustained was to become one of the most fruitful centres in the world and the source, with some exceptions, of all the Glaxo products sold today.

Finally, haunted by takeover bids, he saw Glaxo through a bitter wrangle involving Glaxo, Boots and Beecham. Buttressed by transparent intellectual honesty, Wilson's clear and reasoned exposition of the economic waste and damage to research brought about by that sort of financial engineering persuaded the Monopolies Commission to put a stop to the whole affair.

There was much more to Alan Wilson than this sequence suggests and it is not easy to classify the very wide range of activities which engaged him throughout his life. He had an exemplary record of public service which took him to the Iron and Steel Board, the Electricity Council, and the Committee on Noise, among many others. Pursuing a lifelong and passionate belief in the value of education, he played important parts in a number of educational bodies and a particular achievement in this area was the Industrial Fund for Education, with its aim to provide funds from industry for science laboratories in schools. Wilson's deep interest in Britain's history, traditions, education and craftsmanship is exemplified in his long and close association with the Goldsmiths' Company, where he served as Prime Warden in 1969-70.

Wilson had exceptional intellectual gifts with a mind of remarkable depth, clarity and powers of reasoning which often worked at such a pace that one could be forgiven for thinking that his conclusions were purely intuitive. They never were. He was modest to the extent of being self-effacing and this may have contributed to his fate of being often misunderstood and his achievements always underrated. But he saw more to life than material sciences, logic and mathematics. He had the widest of interests in art and literature and was at home in any field of human activity. His weakness stemmed from the difficulties he had, in spite of his high moral courage, in dealing adequately with the irrational and the mean and the pursuit of selfish interests and petty power politics in practical and business affairs.

In all his activities he had the unswerving support of his wife, Margaret, who died prematurely in 1961, and whose loss he felt very deeply.

Alan Wilson deserves honour as a scientist, industrialist and as a man of wide interest and finest personal qualities. The academic and industrial worlds still have a great need for men of this sort.

Paul Girolami

Alan Herries Wilson, scientist, industrialist: born Wallasey, Merseyside 2 July 1906; Fellow, Emmanuel College, Cambridge 1929-33; Fellow and Lecturer, Trinity College, Cambridge 1933-45; University Lecturer in Mathematics, Cambridge University 1933-45; FRS 1942; research director, Courtaulds 1945-54, managing director 1954-57, deputy chairman 1957-62; Kt 1961; director, International Computers Ltd 1962-72; chairman, Glaxo Group Ltd 1963-73; married 1934 Margaret Monks (died 1961; two sons); died 30 September 1995.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week